Towards transparency in sale of forfeited assets

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Nigerians are expecting nothing short of probity in the way the anti graft agencies especially EFCC carry out their assignments in order to avoid losing their integrity. IDACHABA SUNNY ELEOJO reports.

It is often said that those who go to equity must go with a clean hand. This is to ensure that at the end of the day, justice would not only be done, but seen to be done. It is this is the moral burden that analysts expect of the various anti graft agencies In the country especially the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
In December last year, the commission put up an advertorial in most news media towards the commencement of bid processes for more than 100 properties forfeited to the federal government across major cities in Nigeria. This was for prospective buyers to come forward in an open bidding process devoid of sharp practices.
Shortly after those adverts, the commission commenced the sale of forfeited real estate assets by sealed bids to the highest bidders simultaneously across the country.

Processes transparent – EFCC

While speaking during the sale of bidding processes in one of the centres, Dr George Ekpungu, secretary to the commission noted that the anti graft agency had adopted a competitive bidding format that would guarantee proper accountability in order to ensure that government gets the right value for all the assets being put forward for sale even though profit-making was not the core reason for such exercise.
According to him, “We are doing this openly in all the cities where the property are located for sale so that no one would doubt the extent of integrity put behind this process.”

EFCC act needs amendment

However despite the assurance, there were complains about the whole exercise, for instance, in Lagos, some stakeholders were of the opinion that due process cannot be seen as adequately adhered to if the enabling law allows only the EFCC to directly auction forfeited assets without any other provision for an extra layer of due diligence or another body that would closely monitor the trade tackle from behind the scene.

In Lagos in particular, complains were so rife from some prospective bidders for forfeited vehicles being auctioned by the EFCC who accused the commission of shady deals and the manner the processes went.

It was fierce that a newspaper quoted one of the bidders who allegedly said, “So far, the experience has been frustrating; first of all, the whole exercise does not appear transparent because it seems some people have been selected to pay for some vehicles.” As mild as this might appear, it can jeopardise the integrity of the whole processes.

It is therefore the views of many that an important step towards the transparent sale of forfeited assets is for the Proceeds of Crime (Recovery and Management) Act, 2022 to be amended by the National Assembly in order to accommodate more stakeholders and interested parties in such important exercise.

As it is however, the anti graft agency has insisted that it was transparent all through and followed due processes in the discharge of such important responsibities and auction process devoid of favouritism. Despite the views expressed by EFCC, stakeholders still believe that new provision that would mandate the setting up of an independent inter-governmental commission with civil society participation should be included.

According to them, this would ensure that a prosecuting agency like the EFCC does not enjoy absolute control over the forfeiture process with the hope that such a step would curb pervasive corruption and abuse of prosecutorial and investigative powers in our clime which constitute a threat to public interest.

The processes

As provided in the act establishing the agency, the guidelines for the auction included the prohibition of staff of the commission and persons who have or are being prosecuted in respect of the assets from participating in the process.

To buttress it further, the commission on its part said it would ensure that the current occupants of such property put up for sale had the Right of First Refusal before any bidder. It however noted that it would ensure that former owners of the forfeited properties do not attempt to repurchase the assets by proxy.

“If you have information about any bid by owners of the assets, please let the commission know, and we will take appropriate action, including possible prosecution,” Dr Ekpungu had said during the bidding processes.

Crucially, the EFCC said proceeds from the sale of the assets would be paid into the Confiscated and Forfeited Properties Account at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in accordance with Section 69(a) of the Proceeds of Crime (Recovery and Management) Act, 2022.

However, the Act also assigns the right of forfeiture of assets to other prosecutorial agencies asides the EFCC as Section 69 partly states, “There shall be paid into the Confiscated and Forfeited Properties Account— (a) money realised from the proceeds of sale, management or other form of disposal of forfeited assets under this Act and other relevant laws; (b) proceeds of any property forfeited under section 23 (2) (c) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, which relates to forfeiture to the Federal Government of any property acquired in abuse or corruption of office,”
Section 6 of the same act additionally called for cooperation among agencies in the sale of such forfeited assets.

“In the performance of their functions and exercise of their powers under this Act, the relevant organisation shall cooperate with other relevant entities. (2) In this section, ‘other relevant entities’ includes any other institution or authority not listed as relevant organisation”, the act states.
Because of this, the EFCC said it would resist attempts by former owners of forfeited assets to reclaim the assets by proxy.

However, judging by allegations that some of its officials also buy forfeited assets by proxy, experts say the Proceeds of Crime (Recovery and Management) Act, 2022 has not gone far enough to address the fact that the prosecutor itself (in this case the EFCC) is an interested party hence, there should either be a provision that would subject the EFCC to a form of check/supervision or provide for an entirely different entity to handle the forfeiture procedure given the conflict of interests.

Only EFCC has powers over forfeited assets – Lawmaker

This is similar to the point recently raised by Rep. Adejoro Adeogun, Chairman of the House of Representatives Ad Hoc Committee on Assessment and Status of All Recovered Loot Movable and Immovable Assets from 2002 to 2020 by Agencies of the Federal Government of Nigeria for Effective Efficient Management and Utilisation.

Adeogun had complained that the House does not have the powers to determine how the assets should be disposed of, or to whom they should be sold.

In his words, “Then, the enabling law allows the (anti-graft) agencies to auction directly. The EFCC is supposed to auction what it seized, subject to due process,” Adeogun said.

After all said and done, the expectations of Nigerians from the various anti graft agencies are high. To that extent, no one expects anything less than fairness and probity in the manner they carry out their functions.